Thursday, February 4, 2021

Long Way Home - Chapter 15

           Does the magic last forever?

How is a ‘Soulmate’ seed planted? How does it grow? And most importantly….can it still bear fruit fifty years later?

It had been, after all, a matter of only five or ten minutes, no more. Yet from his still-vivid perspective it had left an impression too deep for words….as though something magical had touched his life.

Did she also remember that time as something special? If she truly was his soulmate she would certainly recognize the truth those brief moments represented.

Finally, could that long-lost connection become a part of his new life? He had to find out.



It was still dark when Clint left Salinas on Sunday morning....ready to move beyond Big Sur and the answers he had not found there. Early that afternoon he hurried around the outer edge of the Los Angeles basin toward the Coachella Valley. Having called ahead to make arrangements for dinner with Gary and Claudia he was in Indio just before six. 

Following Gary’s directions, he made his way to Sanderson’s Sunland Park and moved his few belongings into the park-model home Gary had reserved for him. After a quick shower he pulled a wrinkled, but clean change of clothes from his duffel bag and made himself presentable for dinner. Then, map in hand he made his way to the Tanner Hilton. 

“Looks like you two have settled in just fine,” Clint not-d, surveying the main living room/dining- room/kitchen space. “In fact it looks like a real home. On a smaller scale, of course.”

“I think we’re doing okay,” Gary agreed. “Aren’t we, Babe?”

Claudia looked up from her meal preparation. “Seems like we learn something new every day. Just give us enough days and we’ll be fine  The thing is, we didn’t expect to see you so soon.”

“Yeah, me neither. But you know how it is. Things happen.”

It was a quiet dinner, with conversation centered on Gary’s accounts of their motor-home learning experiences. For Clint the evening would end early, while there was still enough daylight to find his way home.

“I have my first Monday golf game in the morning,” Gary explained as Clint prepared to leave. “If you’d like to join us I’m sure they’d find a place for you.”

“I think I’ll pass, brother. I have to set up housekeeping and do some shopping. I need lots of food, toilet paper, maybe a small TV set. I’ll come over when I get back. I might just sack out on your patio until you get home.”

True to his word, by ten-thirty the next morning Clint was comfortably settled in Gary’s lounge chair ....enjoying the warm breeze that circulated between the trailers and motor homes. When Claudia stepped from the Tanner Hilton with a cup in each hand he sat up and took the coffee she offered.

“You looked like your mind was a million miles from here.” She sat down at the long picnic table, saying nothing more, just smiling her soft, wispy smile.

“I didn’t know it showed.” It was a bit disconcerting, the way she knew at once that his brief daydream had carried him so far away. 

 “You’re a hard one to read,” she offered. “I can’t tell if you’re very tired, or very sad.”

“Who knows? Besides, what difference does it make?”

“Why there’s a big difference. The difference between needing rest or comfort.”

That seemed to him a strange distinction to be though she felt one response or the other was required of her. “You pay attention to that kind of thing, don’t you?” he wondered out loud.

Claudia leaned forward, her elbows on the table. “Clint, for a long time I was very hurt and very lonely. I suppose that made me sensitive to people who are dealing with loss and hard times.” Her words trailed off for a few seconds. “I went through that twice, you know....first Gary in high school, then Gus. You’ve lost Karen, and now Elly. I think I have some idea of what you’re feeling.”

“Maybe so.”

“Would you be willing to tell me how it feels to you?”

Why did it feel as though her questions, their entire conversation for that matter, was taking an unexpectedly mystical turn? He had never been around anyone who projected the caring wisdom he felt in her presence. It was hard to imagine that this woman, who had appeared so timid and unsure when they first met, was in fact so grounded and understanding.

Even before he knew what to say, Clint heard himself speaking. “I can’t have what I want. That’s exactly how it feels. Like it’s out of reach. I can’t be the person it would take to have that.” He was staring into his folded hands.“So I have to learn how to deal with that.”

That was, in sum, the distilled insight from his first two days at Big Sur. “I suppose for some people getting older means being resigned to who they are,” he continued. “They end up accepting their limitations....what they can do, what they can have, what they can’t have.”

“It hasn’t worked that way for you?”

His eyes closed and he shook his head slowly. “For me it seems like getting older just makes it hurt more when I mess up. It’s easier to see what’s passed me by, what I’ve missed out on.” 

He looked up at her with an embarrassed grin. “I know it’s stupid. It’s certainly not rational. There are no do-overs in life. I know that. But the wishing for another chance won’t go away.”

“So what’s the answer? Or is there one?”

He rose from the lounge chair and moved to the table, directly across from Claudia. “You know very well there’s an answer. You and Gary have found it. And it’s great to see, watching you two make each other happy. 

"That’s what it takes, isn’t it? Someone who shares the same dreams....who’s willing to show you over and over that you’re as special as you’d like to think you are.”

“And?” She kept prodding, nudging him toward his own answer.

“And what?” Was it time, he wondered, to speak of where his search had finally led him....the surprising dream his last day at Big Sur had resurrected? Could she even listen to that without laughing out loud? 

“Look,” he began. “It’s really hard, not having someone to talk to. You end up talking to yourself. But sometimes, when your ideas get too crazy, it’s safer that way. There’s no one around to tell you how bizarre they are. Can you understand that?”

“Who says your ideas are ‘bizarre’?” she asked.

“Okay. Why don’t you tell me if this fits the bill?” 

He paused for a deep breath, knowing he would never find a more caring, nonjudgmental soul to hear him out. “Like you said, Karen’s gone. And Elly too. I’m alone. And I don’t like the way that feels. If there was a way to make it stop, I’d do that right now. I’d just turn off the switch.” By then his gaze was blank and unfocused.

“But I couldn’t do that. The wanting wouldn’t go away. The more I thought about it, the more I found myself looking somewhere else for answers.” 

Claudia seemed intrigued by that possibility. “Somewhere else? What does that mean?”

He laughed softly, surprised that he would even consider sharing his improbable musings. But how else could he expect her to understand? 

“Right now,” he began. “I just don’t see much of anything, or anyone, in my future. That’s why I went to Big Sur in the first try and make sense of things. 

“But instead I got pulled off in a different direction. It was like I turned around and looked backwards. And when I did that, I remembered something from a long time ago. Something that seemed to make sense at the time.”

Though Claudia’s questioning grin was hard to miss, he wanted to finish before she said anything. “The other night in Salinas I picked up a little book that got me thinking.“ What made him bold enough to wink at her as he asked? “Have you ever heard of ‘soulmates’?”

“I suppose that depends on what you mean. What’s a soulmate, according to your book?”

“The way this guy tells it, a soulmate is someone you’re meant to be with, someone who completes your life. Who makes you whole.” 

He paused to remember the questions that flooded his own mind when he first read that simplistic explanation. Could there really be just one right person? And if so was it really someone who had touched his life at some time in the past....for the sole purpose of initiating their connection? It had the sound of a con game or cult religion, a real sucker bet.

“Wouldn’t that make Karen your soulmate?” Claudia asked. “You two were married for so long.”

“That’s what I thought,” he nodded. “But this guy says there’s a reason for everything that happens. A cosmic purpose, I suppose you’d call it. According to him there’s a reason for everything that happens and every person who comes into your life, even for just a little bit. 

“And when someone leaves, there’s always someone else to take their place. Whatever happens, it’s meant to be. There are no accidents, no coincidences. That's pretty bizarre, eh?”

There was only her quiet smile, so he continued. “Anyway, according to that way of thinking, if you’re you were before you met Gary again, like I am now, there is a soulmate waiting out there for you. 

“It’s probably someone you’ve met before, someone from your circle of you and Gary. They may not be close to you now. But at some point in your life your paths have crossed.” 

He paused, wondering again if he had done the right thing. He knew for sure that Gary would be laughing out loud by now. How would Claudia react?

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard it called a ‘soulmate,’” Claudia began. “But the idea sounds familiar.” 

Her thoughts had turned to her own long years as a single mother, and the lonely years after the children had left home. “There were times when I felt so alone that I wondered if there was someone who could help me get through it.

“I thought about that after I saw Gary at the reunion. I asked myself if that was something that was meant to happen.” She was smiling at the thought of it, how that instant spark of recognition had overcome her natural timidity. 

“Later, when Elly called to say that he was in the hospital again, she convinced me that I could connect with him even when he was in a coma. I guess that would make him a soulmate. Wouldn’t it?”

“Sounds like it to me.”

“Clint. I don’t think your idea is so bizarre. I’m not sure how it works. But I do believe there’s someone out there you could be happy with, if that’s what you want. I’ll admit though....I believe that choice is up to us, and not written in the stars.” She cleared her throat before adding, “For you, I would have thought that person must be Elly.”

“Me too. I really believed it was going to happen like that. Everything about it felt right. It hurt like hell to find out it wasn’t right at all.”

“Are you absolutely sure it’s over? Maybe there’s still a way.”

Clint looked away, searching for an exit from that dead end. “It doesn’t matter what she calls it or how she tries to deny what it is. Bottom line, she decided to bring Tom home with her. As far as I’m concerned that speaks for itself.”

“I’m not sure you’re reading that right. But that’s something you two would have to sort out. Anyway, if it’s not her, does that mean there’s someone else? Is that what your ‘soulmate’ writer says? And if that’s right, do you have any ideas?” 

Clint was laughing to himself, knowing their conversation was about to become even more uncomfortable. She was inviting him to move from the general to the specific. Was he ready to share that dream? 

Pulling his chair out into the now-warm sunshine, he turned it ninety degrees to put the sun on his back. While Claudia went inside for more coffee, he closed his eyes and soaked up the calming warmth. 

Returning, she refilled his cup, then turned her chair to face him....though she remained in the shade of the awning. “Is there something else you wanted to share? I don’t want to pry,” she said, knowing very well that she was indeed prying.

“Yeah, I suppose there is. But I know it’s going to sound like I’ve gone around the bend.”

“You’ll have to decide if it’s something you want to talk about.”

His eyes were still closed as he slipped seamlessly into the comforting familiarity of his daydream. With no effort at all he recreated the scene and the players. An instant later he was sensing the anxious excitement of an unexpected embrace, the warm feeling of being held, and the urgent wish that it would never end. 

“It was the summer of our freshman year at Southside High,” he began, staring at the ground as he assembled the memory fragments. 

“Jay Black had his dad’s car. He and Darla Huff were out cruising around. Darla’s girlfriend and I were tagging along. We were downtown, the four of us, when Jay spotted his cousin at a bus stop. He yelled over at him to come with us. The guy, who I’d met a couple times before, got in the back seat with Darla’s friend and me.

“Later we ended up at the reservoir, up on the hill. It was dark by then, and I suppose Jay and Darla were looking for a chance to get off by themselves. Anyway, about then Jay’s cousin started coming on to Darla’s friend. There was nothing subtle about it. He was making a nuisance of himself and it scared the hell out of her. If I hadn’t been so damn timid I might have told him to back off. But I didn’t. Instead, I got what was probably the shock of my life.”

After fifty years and countless replays, Clint knew exactly what was coming next. Yet the gathering emotions felt as real as the first time. 

“We were sitting in the back seat, the three of us, with her in the middle. I could tell she was scared, but I didn’t know what to do. Then, all of a sudden she, Darla’s friend that is, turned and wrapped her arms around me, buried her head on my shoulder, and held on for dear life.”

From his still-vivid perspective, what followed was an experience too deep for though something magical had touched his life. 

“You didn’t know me then,” he said, looking over to Claudia. “I was just a homely ole kid, who no one paid any attention to. There was no reason they should have.

“Anyway, I remember that she was shaking. I could feel that. So I just did the most natural thing of all. I put my arms around her and pulled her even closer. For the next couple minutes we just sat there, holding each other real tight, not saying a word.”

Claudia leaned forward in her chair, drawn by the intensity of his telling, perhaps wondering where it would lead. She said nothing, however, so he continued. 

“At that point Lenny, Jay’s cousin, was mad at everyone. When we got back in town we dropped him off. By then, of course, the girl had moved back to the middle of the seat and everything had returned to normal.” 

“It must have been something special, at least while it lasted.” At last Claudia had returned to their conversation. “It would have be special for you to remember it after all these years.”

“It was the first time I’d ever felt like that, especially when she looked up at me with that little smile of hers. I’ve always believed that for those few minutes she was exactly where she wanted to be. Of course, I wasn’t surprised at how fast she got over it.” 

“How about you? Have you ever felt like that again?”

“Sure,” Clint nodded. “I felt that way with Karen lots of times. I wish that had never ended. But it did. And I felt that way with Elly too. And now she’s gone.” His head was in his hands and his eyes were closed. 

“But that night at the reservoir was the first time. There were times, even when I was with Karen or Elly, when thoughts of that night would pop into my head. Being really close to someone seemed to trigger those feelings. 

"I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished I had those few minutes back, just once more. When I get in that space it feels like I’d just hold on tight and never let go. 

“After that first time," Clint continued. "I would dream about her liking me....about how it would feel to think I was good enough for her. That part felt a lot like getting to know Elly....when I was sure I was in over my head. She kept saying I belonged there with her. But of course in the end she realized that I didn’t.”

“So where does this story of yours take you?" Claudia asked. "Why does it mean anything now?”

“Maybe you could guess that,” he offered, pushing his chair closer to the table. “If I told you who Darla’s girlfriend was that night.”

“Was it someone I knew?”

“I think so. You came to Tanner in your junior year. Right? She was still there then.” He leaned back, having reached the moment of truth. “Do you remember Tanya Worth?”

“Tanya Worth?” For a moment Claudia’s well-intentioned counsel was sidetracked by the unlikely truth of it. First Elly Beyers, now Tanya Worth. Why had her soft-spoken friend set his sights on that pair....each in her day the undisputed queen of high-school society? 

“Are you serious? It was Tanya Worth who felt that way about you, for even a few minutes?”

“Yeah. Tanya Worth.”

“Oh my.” As the shock wore off Claudia was uncovering new questions. “Do you suppose she remembers that day? Like you do?”

Clint straightened up, pleased to know Claudia was still treating the subject with some degree of seriousness. 

“I’ve always assumed she probably remembered it for maybe five minutes," he answered. "We were in school together for years after that. She never once offered any hint that she even knew who I was. Why would she? But look at me. It’s fifty-some years later and I’m still hung up on it. I don’t suppose I’ll ever forget it.”

It was true. He had never forgotten. But what remained was more than simple remembering. In some inexplicable way that random snippet of an otherwise forgettable evening had become indelibly etched in his memory. By what logic had the momentary euphoria of Tanya Worth’s urgent embrace become, for the rest of his life, his own personal shorthand for how affirmation and caring ought to feel?

The pleasurable mind-glow of those memories had returned from time to time over the the evening in his Salinas motel, as he read about soulmates. Long before, as a Ft. Ord soldier sitting in a quiet corner of Big Sur Park, he had turned away from those vivid Tanya Worth recollections, leaving them behind.

Incredibly, half a century later, fresh from Elly's desertion, he had returned to find those memories still there, waiting to be reclaimed. In a world where his Soulmate author claimed there was no place for coincidence or random accidents, could that be accidental?

Claudia leaned back, puzzled, but apparently willing to respond. “Are you saying Tanya Worth might have been your soulmate?”

“I can’t say for sure. All I know is that in sixty-eight years nothing else has made the same impression. The thought of it, of her, has crossed my mind. I’m even thinking that perhaps she is my soulmate, not was.” 

“Clint. It’s been fifty some years.”

“I know,” he nodded, knowing how insane it must sound. ”Here’s the deal. I wanted you to hear this for two reasons. First, because I don’t know anyone else who wouldn’t laugh off the whole idea.” 

“There’s certainly nothing to laugh at,” she assured him. “It doesn’t sound like you think it’s funny.”

“That’s true. The second reason, though, may be a little harder for you to accept.”

“What’s that?”

“I want to find her. Tanya Worth.” There was no smile now. No twinkle in his eye. Just an absolutely serious need to carry on. “That’s what I decided at Big Sur....that I have to find her. 

“And I’m thinking your cousin Sarah might be able to help, to find out where she lives now. Sarah’s one of those kind who keeps track of people or knows someone who does.” Claudia was reading the pleading in his eyes. “Would you help me do that?”

It was Claudia’s turn to consider, then reconsider, her reply. Clearly Clint’s soulmate obsession had the potential to cause more trouble than she had first imagined. “Are you sure, Clint? I mean, she must be married. There’s probably a husband and family.” 

“I know.”

For a moment she reverted to her caring-mother role, lecturing a troubled child. “You know," she said. "There are some things that are right. And some things that are not. It’s hard to see how anything good could come of finding her.”

“Claudia. I know what I feel, even after all this time. What if she’s been in that same place? What if she has the same questions?”

“That seems very unlikely.”

“Well, I’d still like to know where she is,” he answered. “That’s all. I can’t even say what I’d do if I knew. I’d just want to know. Would you be willing to ask Sarah for her help? Probably without telling her who you were asking for.”

Claudia was on her feet, gathering their cups as she pondered a mind full of troubling questions. Did he understand how many people might be hurt, including perhaps himself? More to the point, was she willing to be part of such a dubious undertaking?

“Please let me think about that. Okay? For right now, I’d better get ready for lunch. Gary will be back before long.”

1 comment:

  1. Very intriguing -- Tanya Worth. Will Clint find her? Will he contact her? Or will he get back to Elly first? With Claudia's granddaughter's situation and this, there are lots of loose ends that make me want to keep reading.